Bio-secure bubbles: Cricket embraces the new normal!

There was no stepping out of the bubble, no exploring the city... Life was all about staying put in the on-site hotel. It’s all about embracing the new normal.

In the second Test, England’s Dom Sibley used saliva by mistake, prompting umpire Michael Gough to sanitise the ball.   -  AP

“Anyone who thinks this is going to be a holiday camp is going to be seriously mistaken...”

Ashley Giles, the cricket director of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), had warned even before the three-match Test series between England and the West Indies had gotten underway in July. The former England international knew it would be no easy task for the players or other stakeholders to stay put inside a bio-bubble for nearly two months.

After all, spending a lot of time “on your own is not a lot of fun.” It is a bit of a “culture shock and also a bit weird.”

But in a world where masks, hand sanitisers and social distancing have become part of the new normal, there is very little that one can do. And that’s why ever since touching base in Manchester in the second week of June, the players from the Caribbean were confined to their hotel rooms. There was no stepping out of the bubble, no exploring the city... Life was all about staying put in the on-site hotel.

“Being in your room a lot more than usual is probably a little more taxing on the brain,” Kemar Roach, the West Indies’ pace ace, said. And he certainly had a point. After gruelling training sessions, the players usually cool their heels or go out for some shopping. But this time around, all they had were indoor games such as dominoes and cards for company.

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In the times of COVID-19, the mantra for cricket boards and stakeholders is quite clear — create bio-bubbles and ensure that enough precautions are taken to protect against the spread of the virus.

That, they feel, is the only way to get the game going.

During the long tour, the West Indies stayed in two locations — Manchester and Southampton. And at both venues, the teams went inside the bubble much before the series began to get used to the “new conditions.” There were daily thermal screenings and the players were tested twice weekly.

That’s not all. The Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford complexes were divided into three zones, which only designated members had access to. The Green Zone was for the players and the umpires, the Orange Zone for the operational team, and the Red Zone was for food and catering. And Steve Davies, Old Trafford’s operations director, stated that this was done to ensure that things were going as per protocol.

However, there were teething troubles.

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Before the first Test, West Indies coach Phil Simmons drew flak for attending his father-in-law’s funeral despite obtaining the requisite permissions. On returning to the bubble, he stayed in self-isolation for a week. And just when it appeared that the players and officials were slowly getting used to the rules, England’s Jofra Archer was dropped from the second Test for breaching the bubble protocol.

Even though Archer was back for the third Test, his actions did not go down well with former England captain Michael Atherton. “It’s put at risk all the work that ECB has done. These six Test matches — three against the West Indies, three against Pakistan — they’ve had to do a tremendous amount of work to get these games on,” Atherton told Sky Sports.

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If the players had initial difficulties, it was challenging for the match officials and the media as well. With the International Cricket Council (ICC) putting a ban on the use of saliva to shine the ball, the on-field umpires had to be on their toes. In the second Test, England’s Dom Sibley used saliva by mistake, prompting umpire Michael Gough to sanitise the ball.

But the match officials and the ECB were quite satisfied with the way things went throughout the series. Just like the players, even the media and the broadcasters had their challenges. While only 12-13 scribes were allowed to cover the Test series, the broadcasters had to televise the toss with the help of technology as the experts were not allowed to go near the field of play. On screen, the Michael Holdings and the Nasser Hussains did admit that it was a challenging job, but as the two teams played some competitive cricket, things eased out.

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The West Indies may have gone home, conceding the series 1-2, but England’s stint with the bio-bubble isn’t ending anytime soon. The three-match One-Day International (ODI) series against Ireland at the Ageas Bowl, too, was played inside a bubble, with no spectators around.

And for a month and a half, the Pakistan team, too, will be part of the bubble during its long series against Joe Root’s men. And for that, the touring team reached Derby well in advance to get used to the new normal.

Not just for the players, the bio-bubble has been a new experience for cricket journalists as well.

Sam Morshead, who covers the game for The Cricketer, was at the Ageas Bowl for the ODIs between England and Ireland, and he admits that it was “as different an experience” as he has ever had in his career. “Anyone attending the Ageas Bowl on a day-to-day basis had to pass through a walk-in temperature check upon arrival, twice, before being confined to a very strictly controlled outer zone,” Morshead said. And even before he got the all-clear to attend the games, he had to undergo an at-home COVID swab test, fill in several online forms, download a health passport app and “read pages upon pages of explanations of our responsibilities and the aims of the bio-secure bubble.”

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On match days, the venue had three zones — outer, for the day staff and the print media; inner — for broadcasters and the ECB staff; and the PMOA — for the players and match officials.

“Behind-closed-doors cricket offers very little to write about. So much of the reason for journalists to be at games is to pick up on the atmosphere, stroll through the concourses, small talk with players and coaches after games. Until we defeat COVID, understandably none of that is possible,” Morshead said.

And that’s why the seasoned cricket writer feels that the ODIs in Southampton — though an incredible achievement by the ECB — were an empty spectacle. There were no fans to cheer for the teams, no Barmy Army to play “Jerusalem”... All that was there was some cricket and a whole lot of silence.

“It was an absolute privilege to be one of just 300 or so people watching this series in the flesh, but all it did was serve a reminder of the 15,000 or so who could not be there... One day, hopefully soon, they will be. The sport will be richer for it,” Morshead said.

Till then, it’s all about following the protocols and staying put inside the bubble!